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New Approaches to Preserving Chinese Antique Porcelain
Sean ChengThe Elim MuseumThe Elim Museum believes that the preservation of cultural heritage is not a static process whereby antiquities are to be shown and exhibited for occasional walk-in customers. Preservationists can take a more dynamic and proactive approach to cultivating future audiences through long-term, purpose-driven programs. Our projects, as demonstrated in this essay, show our diligence in making our resource—the antique porcelain collections—available for artistic activities of re-creation for community engagement.
The ChallengeChinese antique porcelain is one of the oldest forms of fine art on earth, and its legendary influence has been universally recognized. It combines mastery of clay material with decorative skills to produce pieces that achieve “instinctive appreciation and understanding of proportion in relation to function, and of line in relation to form.” Based on the archeological findings, many scholars agree that the emergence of this crafty invention of “the art of fire and clay” can be dated back to as early as 12,000 BCE. The characteristics and beauty derived from the process of potting, glazing, styling, painting, and patterning Chinese porcelain distinguished it from any other artistic creation. As cultural heritage, it is invaluable, not just for the Chinese, but for all of humanity.
Collecting and preserving Chinese porcelain has been very challenging. We acknowledge that China has undergone a dramatic socioeconomic transformation since 1980; an accompanying geographical change has also taken place due to massive excavations and construction. These conditions have led to growing concern from the perspective of cultural heritage preservation. One sees surprisingly booming antique markets in almost every city across China, driven by old, inherited, or newly-unearthed antiquities including old porcelain. Unlike in the Western world, where most antiquities sold and exhibited will be properly documented, collections in China are often plagued by a lack of transparency at almost every level. How can a private museum position itself in collection management and preservation without transparency and access?
There has been a generational shift in the mentality of collectors. Millennials, sometimes known as digital nomads, are more likely to spend money on experiencing things than owning things, so heirlooms or their forefather’s treasured curios could be easily passed over by them. This changing perspective on “owning” antiquity will be prolonged, irrevocable, and universal. Chinese antique porcelain art will be facing the crisis of decreasing audiences.
Even though there is no official estimated amount of newly-found antiquities since the early 1980s, the number is not insignificant. The private antique market in China has prospered for years; innumerable ancient artifacts have been traded among private collectors and institutions. This trend has been further reflected by the emerging private museums in China that grew in double digits between 1996 and 2013. The National Bureau of Antiquity reports that the total number of private museums was 1,297 by the end of 2016. All these private institutions must have a more reliable, non-government-controlled supply chain of collectables.
A dilemma occurred. Should the collection of these orphaned Chinese antiquities proceed despite the absence of a birth certificate to indicate their provenance? For heritage preservation, shouldn’t a museum catalogue be created for these least-documented, but historically important, ancient artworks that could be prone to damage and destruction?
The term "cultural heritage" is used by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to include only “monuments, groups of buildings, sites,” but it also embraces “our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.” This definition is applicable to ancient Chinese porcelain art.
The Elim Museum’s leadership believes that preservation is a more provocative and proactive way to confront the challenges of preserving cultural heritage. We established a digital museum in 2015, with the vision “to reconnect the old heritage to new generations and to merge tradition with the reinvention of our time.” Our mission was to preserve ancient Chinese porcelain art by reusing its traditional styles and patterns in modern applications.
Put into practice, how can a small museum keep its unfailing enthusiasm to achieve its vision and mission? We tried not to be over-ambitious, but rather to implement workable programs with short-term, measurable objectives. Good quality collection would be the foundation of our website, but an elaborate approach to proactively interacting with art lovers and practitioners was essential. We set out to achieve our long-term mission by tackling small daily milestones.
We wanted museum attendees, viewers, and participants to be connected individually with our collections through their own creative contribution. We wanted audiences to understand and be inspired by our idea that an artifact could be a good incubator for new creativities. Fusing old ancestral designs with new renovations is also applicable to many art-related fields, such as painting, photography, graphic design, and flower arrangement. It’s important to note that we are not the first to invent such a hybrid solution, but we are thrilled by the potential effects that inviting creativity and collaboration can bring to our collections.
One of our resource-transforming solutions was to open our image database free of charge to our membered artists and graphic designers. Our museum owns plenty of intangible assets for our own needs, but we determined which could be best used by others to launch new creations or inventions. Viewers might be surprised by the taste of ancient Chinese artists, like the Cizhou-ware lantern vase, but we seldom think about how the visual effect can be reborn in modern applications. The old lantern vase with its unique pattern is probably one of the best illustrations of our approach.
We tested our idea by creating an online community comprised of groups of artists and art lovers, and invited several amateur young artists to adopt old motifs and patterns from our collections for their self-directed recreational activities. A pattern of a thirteenth- to fourteenth-century underglaze blue porcelain charger with a phoenix and cranes pattern was retained by Kebby Peng, who later rendered us two sets of renewed designs that positively affirmed the feasibility of our initial concept.
In a second case, three students aged 17 to 28 were asked to create paintings inspired by “A Boy Holding a Puppy,” the motif from a thirteenth- to fourteenth-century Chinese Cizhou-ware boy sculpture of polychrome overglazed in black and red. Our purpose here was to see how participants would respond with their own interpretations and empathies to the scene. By following a synonymous theme from the visual prompt, they expressed their feedback through their own creation of new artworks. Amazingly enough, those who participated in this event turned in compelling artworks.
These initial undertakings tested our ideas, and the Elim Museum now plans to reproduce similar heritage-encountering events with other kids and teenagers. Our community will focus on various groups of members, divided by age, skill level, and interests. We will create a digital gallery for each group so members can showcase their new artworks. New creations will also be individually linked to our current collections, promoting free access for appreciation, assessment, and discussion among participants.
ConclusionThe Elim Museum uses ancient Chinese porcelain pieces as triggers for new artistic creations and inventions that amplify awareness of ancient Chinese iconography. The contemporary motifs and patterns derived by artists and art lovers from our current collections promote an innovative fusion of old content and new formation. It would be senseless for the process of heritage preservation to take place without making participants aware of the moral and decorative meaning of cultural objects. The Elim Museum takes this awareness one step further by inviting artists to subsequently apply their new knowledge to new creations. A piece of antiquity becomes a concrete example to promote brainstorming between the modern mind and older artistic expressions through the process of inner dialogue, impression and imagination, reinterpretation, and re-creation.
Dedicated to preserving one of the oldest cultural assets on the earth, the Elim Museum understands the inherent value and challenges of this task. We have emerged, like many small museums, with the growing pressure of the swiftly changing social climate as well as the overwhelming struggle for funding and public recognition. We have had to develop our own coping strategies, believing that the best solution is the readiness of paradigm-shifting.
Conventional preservation has been accomplished through the collecting, safe-keeping, displaying, and exhibiting of carefully conserved objects. However, for museums to survive and thrive, the conventional way is no longer sustainable. Even with the best quality collections, losing audiences will be unavoidable unless a museum purposely attracts and expands its next generation of audiences.
We have adapted a proactive approach to cultivate our community, reusing our collections as resources to infuse individual creativity, to foster group education, and to cheer momentum through a collective or collaborative art appreciation process. We have attempted, by promoting and hosting interactive events, to cultivate awareness of the importance of our cultural heritage. Our programs, of course, are experimental, which carries risks and uncertainties. The Elim Museum has taken one small step on our long journey. We are faithful that our endeavors will continue to produce great results, and that our hard work will never be undertaken in vain.
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- Dr. Margret Medley held that the earliest form of Chinese porcelain emerged as early as the second millennium BC. See The Chinese Potter (London, England: Phaidon Press Limited, 1999), 17.↵
- Medley, 15.↵
- Zhiyan Li, Virginia Bower, and Li He, Chinese Ceramics: From the Paleolithic Period through the Qing Dynasty (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2010), 32-33.↵
- See: Goldman Sachs, “Millennials Coming of Age,” accessed on Dec 8, 2020, https://www.goldmansachs.com/insights/archive/millennials/; Brie Reynolds, “FlexJobs Survey: Millennials More Interested in Travel, Work Flexibility Than Gen X, Baby Boomers,” September 30, 2016, https://www.flexjobs.com/employer-blog/flexjobs-survey-millennials-interested-travel-work-flexibility/; Eventbrite, “Millennials Fueling the Experience Economy,” June 27-July 1, 2014, http://eventbrite-s3.s3.amazonaws.com/marketing/Millennials_Research/Gen_PR_Final.pdf.↵
- One survey conducted by the Taiwan Cultural Committee of Administration Office stated that the private museum had grown from 0 to 200 during the period of 1980-2008. See “The Onsite Study of The Development of Museum Service in Mainland China” (大陸博物館事業發展考察報告): https://report.nat.gov.tw/ReportFront/PageSystem/reportFileDownload/C09702602/003. The New York Times reported that in 2011 alone, there were 390 newly opened museums in China (both private and public): https://cn.nytimes.com/culture/20130322/c22museums/.↵
- The National Bureau of Antiquity, “Our Museums Receive Over 900 Million Visitors Each Year”（“我国博物馆每年接待约９亿人次参观者”), May 18, 2017, http://www.xinhuanet.com//politics/2017-05/18/c_1120995547.htm.↵
- UNESCO, “Convention Concerning The Protection of the World Cultural and National Heritage,” November 16, 1972, https://whc.unesco.org/archive/convention-en.pdf, 3.↵
- UNESCO, “World Heritage,” accessed December 8, 2020, https://whc.unesco.org/en/about/.↵
- See the original at https://elimmuseum.org/index.php?route=product/product&path=61&product_id=460.↵
- See the original at https://elimmuseum.org/index.php?route=product/product&path=61&product_id=758.↵
- A similar example may be found in: Zhiyan Li, Virginia Bower, and Li He, 327; Medley, 118.↵